Charles Hamilton Houston was born on September 3, 1895 in Washington,
D.C. A lawyer and educator, he was instrumental in laying the legal
groundwork that led to U.S. Supreme Court rulings outlawing racial
segregation in public schools.
In 1915, Houston graduated as one of six valedictorians from Amherst
(Massachusetts) College. After teaching for two years at Howard
University in Washington, D.C., he enlisted in the U.S. Army and
was commissioned first lieutenant in a segregated infantry training
unit. He was later recommissioned a second lieutenant in field artillery,
and served in France and Germany during World War I.
Following his discharge in 1919, Houston enrolled at Harvard Law
School, where he was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review.
He earned an LL.B. in 1922 and a Doctorate of Juridical Science
in 1923, becoming one of the few lawyers of his time to earn a doctorate.
He went on to study civil law at the University of Madrid. He was
admitted to the Washington, DC bar in 1924. Although Houston practiced
law with his father until 1950, he was also a law professor and
legal counsel for the The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during that time.
As vice-dean of Howard University Law School (1929-35), Houston
led the school's successful efforts to attain accreditation by the
Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Association.
He shaped the school into a significant institution, at the time
training almost a quarter of the nation's black law students, including
Thurgood Marshall, who later led the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational
Fund to many Supreme Court victories against segregation.
Houston made significant contributions in the battle against racial
discrimination. After joining the NAACP as part-time counsel in
1934, he served as Special Counsel from 1935-38. A towering intellectual,
Houston was one of the principal legal and social architects of
the litigation campaign that developed into the work of the NAACP
Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He argued several important
civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Missouri
ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1939), he argued that it was unconstitutional
for Missouri to exclude blacks from the state university's law school
when, under the “separate but equal” provision, no comparable
facility for blacks existed within the state. Houston's efforts
to dismantle the legal theory of “separate but equal”
came to fruition after his death in 1950 with the historic Brown
v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which prohibited segregation
in public schools.
Houston's contributions to the elimination of legal discrimination
went largely unrecognized until after his death. He was posthumously
awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1950. Several public schools
bear his name, as does the main building of the Howard Law School,
which was dedicated in 1958.
Excerpted with permission from the NAACP
Legal Defense and Educational Fund, www.naacpldf.org